I feel your heavy stares as I pull out my government issued benefits card to pay for the few groceries I have in my cart full of home goods and clothes. I know what you’re thinking, “This is what’s wrong with America!”. We give food stamps and welfare to people who use and abuse the system, just like you assumed I was doing. My cart wasn’t filled with necessities to feed my family, it wasn’t overflowing with diapers, wipes, and formula, so you must have thought that I was working the system, taking the hard earned tax payers’ dollars and using them for my own benefit. If I could afford new clothes and home decor then why couldn’t I afford to pay for the $3 milk and $2 bread that lie in my cart? But there’s so much you just don’t know. There’s so much I want to turn around and explain to you, but I can’t, but if I could this is what I would say to you. I would tell you the $5 I used of tax payers’ money was going to a foster child who has spent almost half his life in a stranger’s home. I would tell you the outfit I just purchased was the first thing I’ve bought for myself in months, a treat of sorts, for making it through the hardest 4 months of my life caring for abandoned and neglected children. I would explain that those adorable bows and bibs aren’t for my own biological daughter but for a sweet 5 month old who never once knew stability or love until she arrived on our doorstep in the middle of the night. But most of all I would tell you I used to be so much like you, casting judgement on the first sign of someone unlike me.
I have made more judgements since being a foster parent than I ever thought I could. I have sat in the County Health Department and wondered how much these people really need these benefits the state is providing when they look as if they can’t even take care of themselves. I have wondered if the biological mothers of my foster children really even deserve to have their children back, despite the full forth effort they are putting in to get better. I have judged them and their circumstances more than I ever care to admit, many times getting angry at them for being able to bear children so easily (something I can’t do), and expecting me to care for them. I have formed opinions about them based solely on the 60+ page court documents that detail every mistake they have ever made as a parent. I have looked down upon them because they got themselves into this situation and now they are expecting me to pick up the pieces of their hurting children.
These judgments are so easy to cast, yet so much more difficult to have put upon you. Until I stood in that Target checkout line I never really understood what it was like to be on the other side. I never knew what it was like to be in a situation where my circumstances dictated others views on me. I never knew how much it hurt to feel a stranger’s look on my back as I tried to provide for the needs of my family.
Being a foster parent has made me realize so much about myself and the system than I ever thought possible. My once skewed views on welfare and government assistance have taken a 180 degree turn. I now realize just how difficult getting these programs are. I spend hours on the phone just trying to get an initial appointment only to be told I need document after document just to prove I qualify for the assistance, and that’s just the beginning. Once I’ve finally gotten to the appointment it is over an hour wait before I’m even seen, and of course I’m required to bring the children with me which doesn’t make the waiting any easier. Over an hour and a half later I’m finally walking out of the building with a cranky baby and a 3 months supply of minimal food benefits. I now completely understand why so many people don’t take advantage of the programs that are supposed to help those in need. There’s so much red tape many times it’s not even worth it.
The system isn’t the only thing I’ve had a heart change on. I have found myself coming to the defense of the bio parents more than once when others tell me they deserve to never have their children returned to them. I find myself having compassion for their situations, being reminded that it could be me in their shoes if my life circumstances had been different. I feel hurt for them when I see them take another fall or see the system fighting so hard against them when they are trying so hard to get better. Getting better isn’t easy, but getting better with zero support is an accomplishment I don’t think I am even capable of making.
When one of our children’s bio parents finally engages in visitation and stops cutting every visit short, I celebrate. When she brings cold tablets for her daughter because she remembered it helped her when she had her, it reminds me that she does love her daughter, she just doesn’t know how to care for her; for that I celebrate. When I see my foster son’s mom persevering through treatment and not giving up each and every time the courts tell her it will be another month before she even has a chance to get her children back, I celebrate. I still have moments of judgement, I still have moments where I want to throw in the towel on these human beings that have put these poor babies in this situation, but even through all of that I am finding compassion, something I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to do.
Fostering has opened my mind to so many things. It reminds me when I stare at a beautiful, round, pregnant belly I shouldn’t look upon that woman with anger and jealousy, because I have no idea how hard she had to work for that child. When I see a panhandler on the side of the road, begging for change, who am I to think they’re only going to use that money for drugs or alcohol? When I see my foster child come home from his visit dirty, in clothes two sizes too big, and a note of complaint from the mother I have to remind myself that she is doing the best she can in the circumstances she’s been given, and she really isn’t trying to do any harm. When a caseworker calls me 2 hours before she wants to make a home visit I have to take a deep breath and tell myself she is overworked, underpaid, and just trying to do the best she can in the chaotic system that is her job.
These are the daily reminders that have helped me change my outlook on this entire process. I have found that when I give compassion instead of judgement I become not only a more positive person but a happier person as well. When I see things through the eyes of others I am not constantly in a state of despair for the future, but hopeful for the things to come. I am reminded that even in the trials and tribulations of our journey through fostering, infertility, and loving and losing there will be times compassion is extended to us, and if we are able to feel the love and compassion of others, then who am I to not do the same towards the least of those?